Thursday Lecture Series

The Invisible Palace: Politics of Abstraction and the Aesthetics of a Catholic Technocracy

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

A pristine and hovering marble cube punctuated by a few deep openings, the Civil Government Building (b.1956-64) in Tarragona, Spain, stands as the “tour de force of poetic abstraction” of Spanish modern architecture. The elegant transition from polished stone to glass in the façade, the opaque articulation of public bureaucracy and private housing in the program, and the rigorous solution of its every detail have made the building a canonical representative of a period so-far characterized by its “silence,” that is, by the distancing of architects and their designs from ideological agendas and political symbolism in lieu of masterful abstraction. Yet the building was erected at the peak of Francisco Franco’s regime (1939-1975) and for purposes of housing the policing infrastructure of the dictatorship. This paper will present the narrative that has taken the hermetic nature of the Tarragona Civil Government at face value to construe the edifice as aesthetically silent and politically invisible, and confront it against evidences that speak of an alternative version of its silence. By presenting disparate pieces of the building’s archive—its elusive presence in State propaganda, drawings of its genealogy, the ideas of a technocrat uninterested in architectural issues—the paper will argue for the structural role the building played in the production of the Franquista regime. More broadly, it will reveal oblique but certain ways in which architecture participated of the ideological and governmental transition of the regime from a fascist military autarky to a distinct Catholic Technocracy, a transition that allowed for the odd and lasting survival of Franquismo and its ultra-reactionary values, in a modernist guise.